Stopping Sprawl


Smart Growth

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Introduction to Sprawl

‘Urban sprawl’ refers to new construction on tracts of previously open land that spreads suburban neighbourhoods outward from a city’s centre and covers farmland and natural areas.

Edmonton’s City Council appears to be convinced that infill – any infill, the type and location to be determined by developers – will stop the city’s outward spread.

In fact, urban planning research shows that, to stop sprawl, City Council must implement a suite of programs, both regionally and locally, at the same time. The suite of programs must include

(1) plans (regional, citywide, and neighbourhood-level),

(2) financial incentives, and

(3) financial disincentives, to direct investment where it is needed.

To stop sprawl, City Council must join a regional plan to cut competition for buyers of low-density suburban homes.

On May 31, 2016, City Council was clearly told to stop sprawl as quickly as possible.

Council was shown that the city and region must rapidly cut competition for buyers of low-density suburbs or become uncompetitive, bloated, and extremely expensive. (The Report of the Advisory Panel on Metro Edmonton’s Future, May 31, 2016 – “Be Ready Or Be Left Behind”).

The Report contains a series of maps showing the (impressive) differences in land use with a regional plan to reduce sprawl.

The Report also details how sprawl decreases economic competitiveness and increases taxes.

Advisory Panel Report

City Council knows that suburbs don’t pay for themselves. Inner-city taxpayers subsidize the capital and operating costs of outlying infrastructure and services.

The City of Edmonton calculates that over the next 60 years, 17 developing neighbourhoods will cost the public $4 billion more than they will bring in taxes—yet there are 40 new suburbs on the go.

City Council is fully aware that suburbs are a poor planning choice.

The Cost of Sprawl

The public also pays the environmental and health-care costs of paved farmland and vehicle dependence.

In the Edmonton region, “prime agricultural lands remain at risk of conversion into residential, commercial or industrial developments, undermining the long-term prospects of the Metro Region’s food and agriculture industry” (Advisory Panel Report).

Furthermore, the public pays the social costs of the flight of families to the outskirts where new and artificially inexpensive single-family homes beckon. “Sprawl appears to be the product of numerous individual decisions to buy houses and locate businesses at low densities outside cities. But this consumer preference is heavily influenced by public construction of the infrastructure that makes ultra-low density locations possible.”

Understanding Sprawl

Unfortunately, Council appears to have shelved “Be Ready Or Be Left Behind.”

Council forwarded the most recent 10-year Capital Region Growth Plan to the provincial government for review on October 31, 2016, without making any of the changes urgently recommended.

City Council continues to promote market-driven, low-density greenfield development.

2016 Growth Plan

To stop sprawl, City Council must plan not only the region but the city as a whole and each neighbourhood as well.

Proper planning is a topic unto itself. It is going to be treated separately under the ‘Plans’ tab on this website.

To implement plans, City Council must impose financial incentives and disincentives to direct infill investment where it is needed.

Develop Vacant City Lands First

The City of Edmonton owns enough vacant lots to build housing for more than 50,000 people – exactly the same number of people projected to move to Edmonton in the next decades.

If we built on the city-owned vacant lots we would have enough housing for the population increase, without building another suburb or demolishing another house to split a lot in an established neighbourhood.

2014 Vacant Land Inventory (Central Core)

Vacant Land Inventory Since 2014

Smart Growth researchers recommend that local governments provide incentives to develop vacant land in the city, rather than build on vacant land in the suburbs or demolish existing housing stock to densify established neighbourhoods, as follows:

  • Facilitate the trade of land and transfer of development rights from suburban lands to vacant city lands.
  • Make it profitable to trade land and transfer development rights by charging significantly higher development charges in the suburbs. (Kitchener charges 74% more) and significantly lower charges in the city (Hamilton charges 90% less).
  • Adjust development levies to reflect the actual costs of infrastructure through a sliding scale that significantly increases offsite levies for new infrastructure leading to undeveloped suburbs (utilities and roads). Failing to charge appropriate offsite levies amounts to a subsidy for automobile infrastructure and makes car-centric sprawl attractive).
  • To address privately-owned vacant lots, the city should work with the provincial government to provide significant tax reductions for construction on vacant lots and tax increases for developers leaving vacant lots sit empty (including lots in use for parking) and for construction in suburbs.

Stopping the Sprawl

The Power of Prices


Stop Sprawling and Densify Approved Suburbs

Researchers recommend that cities:

  • Develop a Metropolitan Growth Management boundary, outside of which no development is approved.
  • Intensively densify the suburban lands that have already been approved for development, by offering a Residential Density Grant – a meaningful percentage of construction costs from permitting to finishing.

Stopping the Sprawl

Understanding Density

Density is a measurement of the intensity of the use of a land mass. It can be calculated different ways.

Existing population per hectare is a measurement of density, but not necessarily a good way to plan for the effects of density because there is no guarantee that people will live in an area in future.

Instead, dwelling units per hectare is a more effective way to talk about the physical reality of built form.

Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw uses the measure of dwelling units per hectare.

High density is approximately 105 to 500 units per hectare; medium density is 80-105 units per hectare.

It is important to note that the average density of an area does not reflect the economical use of land. It is possible for an area of low-density sprawl to have a tower on the edge that increases the dwelling-unit density without improving the use of land.

In the current (2010) Capital Region Growth Plan, Edmonton’s new suburbs are expected to meet or exceed 30 dwelling units per hectare, a very low density. The next Plan increases the suburban density threshold to only 45 dwelling units per hectare (du/ha) – also a very low density.

The suburbs City Council most recently approved under the 2010 plan barely exceed the lower limit.

Horse Hill (controversial; on rich agricultural soil) 2013, updated 2015 – 31 du/ha

Hawk’s Ridge, updated May 2014 – 34 du/ha

Paisley, updated May 2014 – 35 du/ha

Riverview, updated September, 2015 – 31.7 du/ha

The Uplands, passed September 2015 – 33 du/ha

River’s Edge, passed September 2015 – 34.5 du/ha

Marquis, passed November 2015 – 38.2 du/ha

Aster, passed January 2016 – 33.3 du/ha

Stillwater, passed August 2016 – 34.1 du/ha

In fact, the current City Council regressively approved multiple suburbs much less dense than in the past: Ambleside, passed 2005, and Allard, passed 2007, are both 38 du/ha.

Understanding Land Use versus Density

City Council claims that, even though they have been approving low density surburban development, the suburbs are superior to established neighbourhoods because they contain a mix of lower-density and higher-density housing.

The question is, does the housing reduce land use or simply add a bit of compact housing to increase the density average.

As it happens, these new suburbs do not use land efficiently. Most of the residential land is covered by ultra-low density single-family housing – business as usual.

City staff reports that “…the majority of the net developable residential area…in new residential neighbourhoods is designated for low density residential built forms (i.e., single and semi-detached housing).”

Costs and Revenues for New Areas

For example, the plan for Marquis (the highest-density new suburb), shows large tracts of very low-density areas with row housing along a road and a few spots of higher-density housing. The residential portion is 283.6 hectares of residential land, to be developed as follows:

Single detached homes – 76.2% of the landmass (216 ha) at the ultra-low density of 25 du/ha

Row Housing – 10.1% of the land (28.6 ha) at the low density of 45 du/ha

Low-rise/Multi/Medium Rise Units – 11.3% of the land (32.2 ha) at 90 du/ha

Medium to High Rise Units cover 1.6% of the land (4.6 ha ) at 225 du/ha

Mixed Uses (residential uses) cover 0.8% of the land (2.3 ha) – at 90 du/ha

The vast majority of the land is covered with urban sprawl.

A caveat about plans that include higher-density housing: Developers frequently build the low-density housing, then move on to the next neighbourhood without completing the higher-density housing in the plan area.

Costs and Revenues for New Areas

Understanding Infill As Edmonton Is Doing It

Apparently, Edmonton’s sole development incentive to direct investment and affect sprawl is in Business Improvement Areas (main street commercial areas): “A reimbursement grant of $12,000 per new dwelling for a mixed-use, market housing project, to a maximum of 36 new dwellings,” that creates new dwellings along with commercial space, or “$7,000 per new dwelling for a multi-unit market housing project, to a maximum of 36 new dwellings, that creates a minimum of 10 new dwellings.”

This is a drop in the bucket. A regional and local suite of programs targeting sprawl is a much more challenging objective than Council has set so far. It will involve much more complex thinking than Council has done.

Infill – as Edmonton is doing it – is a very low priority.

Council’s ‘Evolving Infill’ marketing campaign takes a simplistic view of the serious work of city building.

‘Evolving Infill’ frames development in emotional terms (infill is a form of sociability) rather than as a rational, scientific undertaking approach to responsible planning:

“The City is working to create a balanced approach to welcome more people and new homes into our neighbourhoods…[and] to identify the next best steps to ‘growing in.’

Evolving Infill has three main objectives:

Find opportunities to welcome more people and new homes into our neighbourhoods.

Identify recommendations for how the City can best support quality residential infill development in core, mature and established neighbourhoods.

Create a strategic implementation plan to support the recommendations.”

‘Evolving Infill’ merely dabbles in city planning.

Evolving Infill will not give Council the tools to resolve the city’s outward spread, repair the blighted downtown core, and prevent healthy communities from being harmed by redevelopment.

People lose trust in local government when:

  • Established neighbourhoods are asked to accept change for the purpose of stopping sprawl, while
  • Infill investment simply targets stable neighbourhoods for greatest private profit instead of being directed where it is needed, and
  • Suburban developers are not expected to meaningfully change their approach.

Responsible development demands local governments that commit to a publicly-supported, evidence-based suite of programs, including

(1) plans (regional, citywide, and neighbourhood-level),

(2) financial incentives, and

(3) financial disincentives, to direct investment where it is needed.